August 23rd, 2013
by Paul Jones
As every child knows, Baa Baa black sheep had three bags full of wool. But if she lived in Monmouthshire and decided she wanted to throw them away, she would now be thwarted under the council’s recently announced plan to allow households only two bags of residual waste per fortnight. I for one am extremely excited about Monmouthshire’s new squeeze policy and think it will have big impact; indeed, it makes me wonder if we might see the sack start to make a comeback.
Squeezes and bulges
Waste restriction or ‘squeeze policies’ are nothing new, although a sack-based policy is unusual. They can involve reducing frequency of collection, reducing the volume of waste that householders can have collected, or both. Nearly two thirds of local authorities have fortnightly waste collections and over the last few years authorities introducing wheeled bins for residual waste have been increasingly opting for smaller sizes. Last year Bristol collected in all its old stock of 240 litre residual bins and replaced them with 180 litre bins, whilst maintaining a fortnightly collection.
Squeeze policies have reliably been found to result in less waste going into the residual waste bin, with much of the material being diverted into the recycling and organics collections, but are not without their critics. Changes tend to be accompanied by public concern that large scale fly tipping will result. However, the limited research into the causes of fly tipping suggests that difficulties in accessing the local tip seem to be a more significant factor than limited bin capacity.
A fairer criticism is that the benefits of squeeze policies may sometimes be overstated. Many district councils that have implemented a squeeze policy have seen improved recycling rates – but part of this may be due to householders taking their extra waste to county controlled civic amenity (CA) sites while other waste may show up as contamination in dry recycling.
Fully commingled recycling, particularly when undertaken in wheeled bins, can be significantly impacted by squeeze polices. Eunomia has recently seen a big increase in the number of authorities seeking help with major contamination problems with their commingled collections.
This may in part be due to MRFs and authorities taking a more realistic approach to the quality of recycling collected by this method after many years of “don’t ask don’t tell”. However it certainly seems that, without control at the point of collection for dry recyclables, the beneficial impact of dramatic squeeze policies on recycling volumes will be undermined by a growth in contamination.
Up to his old Twix
However, there certainly are cases where a squeeze works well. North Somerset, where I live, is a Unitary Authority and as such its 60% recycling rates takes account of all the waste in the area, including material received at CA sites. It is pretty much the highest performing unitary in the country, and its squeeze policy is at the heart of this achievement.
In North Somerset, I’m lucky enough to have a weekly kerbside sort collection that takes in pretty much every conceivable material, including food and spectacles (though I’m not a regular user of the latter facility). My refuse is collected fortnightly in a 180 litre wheeled bin, but even this is far more capacity than I need. So far I have only needed to set it out about once every six months; when I do, it contains about 50% Twix wrappers and 50% miscellaneous multi layered plastic guff. Including one trip (partly a recreational, I confess) to the CA site, I estimate that I contribute less than 20kgs per annum to North Somerset’s MBT plant, while the average household produces 560kgs of residual waste.
Now, I accept that I’m not representative of the average householder (for one, I eat way more Twixes). I don’t have kids or old people living with me, I eat out a lot and make a lot of choices to avoid producing residual waste: for example, I downgraded from Waitrose premium steaks to its economy range, purely because the packaging is recyclable.
However a quick ‘audit’ (or snoop around) of my neighbours’ wheeled bins prior to collection reveals that I’m not alone in finding that I have more than enough residual capacity. More than half the bins whose lids I lifted were far from full, while those short of space clearly had recyclables in them.
The joy of sacks
So the questions are, how do we squeeze further and how far can we go? It seems to me that when really good recycling services are in place, even 180 litres of capacity per fortnight is over the top for any but the most exceptional household. There are now 140L, 120L and even a highly attractive 80L wheeled bin available on the market. Alternatively, perhaps we could keep the same bins and switch to monthly collections, although that would pose a number of logistical problems.
In Monmouthshire’s case, two 80L sacks give an effective restriction of around 120L a fortnight, roughly the wheeled bin capacity I would envisage bold local authorities starting to offer households as recycling levels increase. But while bins are a long term investment, sacks make it easy to experiment with changes in the capacity offered to households. A gradual reduction in the size of the sacks issued could allow waste arisings to be squeezed gradually year on year, rather than in dramatic steps. Ultimately, I can’t see why any but the most exceptional household should need to produce more than one sack of residual waste a week.
For local authorities looking to save on disposal and increase recycling, putting a squeeze on residual waste is an attractive option, especially for those with a kerbside sort recycling system. Monmouthshire’s approach will be worth watching as it develops, especially if sack sizes are decreased over time, as it may point out a way to be bold on capacity without incurring the unfortunate side-effect of increased recycling contamination. My advice would be: you’re going to keep on squeezing, please do be gentle.